I never pass up an opportunity to read John Stackhouse.
Dr. Stackhouse is a professor of theology at Regent College in Vancouver who specializes in the relationship between faith and culture.
His style is engaging, at times provocative, and he regularly challenges Christian stereotypes.
The title of his September 16, 2011 opinion piece in the National Post certainly caught my eye: Note To Evangelicals: Not Every Event Calls For Prayer.
Being that Stackhouse self-identifies with this part of the Christian family, he roused my curiosity and after reading, I realized that the piece was no less applicable to other parts of the church.
Reflecting on some of the upset by some church leaders on not being invited to 10th anniversary gatherings of the 9/11 attacks, he offered a number of reasons for declining the occasional requests he receives to lead prayer at public secular events.
He refers to public prayer as “a form of speech offered on behalf of everyone present to God” and disputes the notion that it is a chance to share one’s faith.
Instead, it can have the effect of marginalizing those “who don’t believe in God; people who don’t believe in the particular kind of deity being prayed to, and people who do believe in God of that sort and don’t like the idea of an all-purpose prayer on behalf of an institution that otherwise pays no serious attention to God’s Word in its operations … So it dishonours God to drag God in for a token celebrity appearance at ceremonies for institutions that otherwise ignore God all the rest of the time.”
As I said, Stackhouse is provocative, but as someone who also receives occasional requests to offer prayers at public secular events, I must confess some sympathy for his position.
The Constitution of Canada asserts that “Canada is founded upon the principles that recognize the supremacy of God,” but beyond that rather general claim, it is not immediately apparent that many of our political and social institutions are especially interested in consulting with God.
There are, thankfully, some secular leaders who seek God, but one would be hard-pressed to find much discourse within the institutions concerning God’s opinion of things.
As such, I wonder why these invitations are made. In fact, there are some times when I worry that some requests for prayer at secular events are simply an attempt to appease a certain segment of the public.
Prayer is very much at the heart of the Christian faith. It leads us into a wonderful intimacy with God that is holy and powerful. Let’s not trivialize prayer. Let’s not, as Stackhouse argues, exploit it “to vaguely ‘dignify’ a secular institution.”
Rev. Phillip Spencer is at St. Stephen’s United Church,